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California farmworker protections not going far enough?

Farmworker advocates say adherence to state rules to prevent heat illness remains sporadic at best.

September 14, 2011|By Paloma Esquivel, Los Angeles Times

"They think it's like any other job," Elenes said. "They say, 'Give us an address,' but it's not like that." He and others have tried hand-drawing maps, printing out Google maps and directing inspectors to work sites by phone. Farmworkers filing complaints, he worried, might not be as savvy.

Cal/OSHA declined to comment on the inspection lapses, citing a pending lawsuit filed by Public Counsel, a public interest law firm, on behalf of farmworkers and the United Farm Workers.

However, agency records show that since the heat standard was implemented in 2005, the number of agricultural work site inspections for compliance has increased dramatically — from 21 that year to 927 last year.

And Cal/OSHA officials said the state had made considerable progress in improving conditions for farmworkers and others toiling in the heat. Officials in 2008, for example, began temporarily shuttering operations where heat-related violations created imminent hazards. So far, 29 outdoor work sites have been affected.

Still, Cal/OSHA's approximately 200 inspectors can cover only a fraction of the state's farms. So organizations like the United Farm Workers and California Rural Legal Assistance Inc. regularly conduct informal monitoring.

"Day in and day out, we hear from our clients and community members about workplace safety violations," said Mike Meuter, an attorney with the legal aid group.

Many farmworker advocates said protections do not go far enough. The onus to recognize the symptoms of heat illness and ask for relief, they asserted, is still on the workers in California's fields.

"Without a clear employer mandate … mere guidance to workers to drink water, seek shade and take breaks has proved wholly inadequate," Chief Assistant Atty. Gen. Matt Rodriguez wrote in 2009, requesting that the state standards board allow Cal/OSHA to raise heat-protection requirements.

At Uesugi Farms in Buttonwillow, the worker who complained to Elenes about the lack of shade told of one woman who had become sick the day before and crawled under a truck to escape the sun.

"Yesterday they didn't put up anything at all" to provide shade, he said.

The farmworker didn't want to give his name, fearing retribution. Still, he wanted others to know what was happening at his work site.

After several minutes of rest under the newly erected canopies, the foremen called their workers back into the fields.

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